How long will this coalition last?

The Lib Dems need to avoid being steamrollered by their Tory partners.

In my recent, much-discussed row with the Liberal Democrats' Simon Hughes on BBC1's Question Time, I made the mistake of betting on-air that his party's coalition with the Conservatives would collapse within two years. In the ensuing days, as I watched the Cameron-Clegg affair bloom and prosper, and the blissful honeymoon continue, I worried that Hughes might be proved right and this coalition government might survive for the full five years.

But in recent days, my doubts have returned. The Tories have repeatedly reminded their Lib Dem allies that they are in charge, and that the tail does not wag this particular dog. Take yesterday's Queen's Speech.

Here's how today's Times begins its coverage of the speech:

David Cameron tilted the coalition away from the Liberal Democrats with a Queen's Speech that defined tax, immigration and police reform on Conservative terms.

In the main article, Roland Watson, Francis Elliott and Sam Coates highlight

a commitment to lower taxation, the first time since the coalition was formed that such a pledge has been made. Nick Clegg told the Times last week that the government's priority was to rebalance the tax burden, not to reduce it. Last week's coalition programme promised "more competitive, simpler, greener and fairer" tax, but no mention of lower taxation.

And here is the standfirst on the Guardian cover story:

Tory hostility to [electoral] reform could disrupt coalition

In the main article, Patrick Wintour says:

The Conservatives said . . . that the bill on AV would also contain measures to reduce the number of constituencies by as much as 10 per cent and to equalise their size -- a complex, controversial and time-consuming measure that will benefit the Tories.

The Lib Dems say the referendum can be held before the boundary review is complete as long as the legislation has been passed setting the constituency boundary review in train. But some senior Conservative sources were hinting the boundary review would have to be under way before the AV referendum could be staged, so delaying its date.

Meanwhile, the Daily Mail's Tim Shipman writes:

Liberal Democrats and Tories are on collision course over plans to tear up the first-past-the-post election system.

The government published plans yesterday for a bill to hold a referendum on bringing in the Alternative Vote system.

But there was immediate disagreement between the coalition partners over when the public will have their say.

. . . Senior Lib Dems fear that if there is a delay, any nationwide vote on electoral reform would simply be seen as a referendum on the government itself, with voters punishing them at the ballot box.

But Tories declared next May "much too soon" for a referendum on electoral reform, voicing the view that it will not be held before autumn 2011 and "could be later than that".

The Tories are playing a dangerous game. Electoral reform has long been the Holy Grail for Liberal Democrats. Indeed, it was Cameron's unexpected concession of a referendum on AV, on the evening of Monday 10 May, that helped him -- finally! -- seal the deal with Clegg.

It would have been impossible for the Lib Dems to join a coalition with the Tories without the referendum promise. And if, in the coming months, they believe that their Conservative partners are intent on dragging their feet and delaying a vote on electoral reform, the Lib Dems may start looking for the exit. Otherwise, they risk being steamrollered by the Tories -- both in office and at the next, first-past-the-post general election.

On a related note, and as today's Independent reminds us, I was amused to see Simon Hughes, of all people, not quite on board the Cleggeron project in the Commons yesterday:

Simon Hughes, a Liberal Democrat backbencher on the left of the party, asked the Prime Minister a less-than-friendly question about housebuilding, but the significance was that Mr Hughes referred to "his" government -- Mr Cameron's, that is. The PM replied that he hoped Mr Hughes would come to regard it as "our" government.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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How will Labour handle the Trident vote?

Shadow cabinet ministers have been promised a free vote and dismiss suggestions that the party should abstain. 

At some point this year MPs will vote on whether Trident should be renewed. It is politics, rather than policy, that will likely determine the timing. With Labour more divided on the nuclear question than any other, the Tories aim to inflict maximum damage on the opposition. Some want an early vote in order to wreak havoc ahead of the May elections, while others suggest waiting until autumn in the hope that the unilateralist Jeremy Corbyn may have changed party policy by then.  

Urged at PMQs by Conservative defence select committee chair Julian Lewis to "do the statesmanlike thing" and hold the vote "as soon as possible", Cameron replied: "We should have the vote when we need to have the vote and that is exactly what we will do" - a reply that does little to settle the matter. 

As I've reported before, frontbenchers have been privately assured by Corbyn that they and other Labour MPs will have a free vote on the issue. Just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members support unilateral disarmament, with Tom Watson, Andy Burnham, Hilary Benn and Angela Eagle among those committed to Trident renewal. But interviewed on the Today programme yesterday, after her gruelling PLP appearance, Emily Thornberry suggested that Labour may advise MPs to abstain. Noting that there was no legal requirement for the Commons to vote on the decision (and that MPs did so in 2007), she denounced the Tories for "playing games". But the possibility that Labour could ignore the vote was described to me by one shadow cabinet member as "madness". He warned that Labour would appear entirely unfit to govern if it abstained on a matter of national security. 

But with Trident renewal a fait accompli, owing to the Conservatives' majority, the real battle is to determine Labour's stance at the next election. Sources on both sides are doubtful that Corbyn will have the support required to change policy at the party conference, with the trade unions, including the pro-Trident Unite and GMB, holding 50 per cent of the vote. And Trident supporters also speak of their success against the left in constituency delegate elections. One described the Corbyn-aligned Momentum as a "clickocracy" that ultimately failed to turn out when required. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.